Sisters, Strangers, and Serendipity

My sister Julie and I just got back from a week and a half in France and London. France was a whirl of beautiful abbeys, fabulous food, and the lilt of a lovely language. London was… something different.

Julie had to work in London, so I was on my own, and I had no agenda for my visit. Every day I got up, headed out in search of coffee, and listened for suggestions from the surroundings about what to do next. The sidewalk unrolled in front of my feet, and somehow coffee led to a museum, which led to a boat ride on the Thames, which led to the mythological marvel that is St. Paul’s, and so on, all day long.

My last day, last Saturday, was no exception. I went to my favorite coffee shop and squeezed into a seat at the communal table. I pulled out my copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, thinking I might get some homework done, but the book sparked a long and lively conversation with some retired locals at the table who had been at Oxford for English and history and philosophy. Not one of those wonderful people asked why I was studying myth, and for that I’ll love them forever. When our coffee was gone, someone said, You should go to the British Library. A chime rang in my head, the musical tone that tells me to sit up and pay attention: ting! Yes, I thought. I’ll go to the British Library.

It was a quick Tube ride; the train blinked three times and I was there. From the outside I wasn’t impressed. The building seemed boring and modern after the gorgeous piles of sculpted stone I’d grown accustomed to, but I went in anyway. The visitors’ pamphlet informed me that the Sir John Ritblat Gallery contained “some of the treasures of our world-class collection.” Manuscript treasures. Bookish treasures. I headed that way and paused at the threshold of a cool, dimly lit room.

Now, I need to tell you that once upon a time, when I was ten years old, I read a book that shaped my life. Actually my sister Jane tricked me into reading it, much against my will. She was twenty-four (therefore bigger than I), and one day she sat on me to keep me from escaping while she read the book out loud, starting with page one. I writhed and yelled and fought this fate with all my might for many pages, and only quieted down when I couldn’t struggle anymore. I lay there, spent and squished, and finally started listening because there was nothing else to do. Soon I was listening because I wanted to, and then because I was ensorcelled. The story felt so strange and so familiar, both at once. The rest of the world fell away until Jane reached the end of a chapter and said, casually, “That’s probably enough for now.” I caught the book as it fell from her hands. I ran away with it. I devoured it. I dreamed about it. I read it and re-read it, dozens of times. It’s the reason I studied literature, and a big reason I’m preoccupied with myth-making today.

So, back to the library. I stepped inside Sir John Ritblat’s room and my eyes adjusted to the low light. Everyone spoke in whispers if at all, shuffling from display case to display case to see the Magna Carta, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, Shakespeare’s first folio, and original copies of literary works from long before typing. The pages themselves were the only things lit in the shadowy room, which gave them the effect of glowing. And sure enough, there it was, the book for which my sister sat on me, the keystone of my personal mythology, glowing brighter than everything else: the fair copy manuscript of Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s handwriting. The first one. The original. Over a hundred and fifty years ago, Brontë traveled into the land of imagination, and this was the grail she brought back. This was the artifact that would carry generations into imagination along with her.

A small placard on the wall cleared its throat and mentioned that seeing a manuscript in the author’s hand could be an emotional experience. Leave it to the Brits to post a warning of impending emotion, but yes. Reading words formed with pen and ink makes the author’s voice almost audible. And the manuscript was open to the page where Jane (Eyre) says, “Excellent!–Now you are small–not one whit bigger than the end of my little finger.” Of course we’re going to get choked up there. Just think if it had been open to Chapter 23: “A splendid Midsummer shone over England: skies so pure, suns so radiant…” That might have been too much, even for me. (No, I could take it!) But the best part was a deletion Brontë had made, four or five lines crossed out with neat backward slashes. Reading the passage with and without that section, I felt like I was experiencing her thoughts and responses: the calm certainty that the text was stronger without those lines, a hiss of exasperation that they had made it to the page in the first place and had survived until so soon before publication.

As I walked away, a shiver ran through me. I’m a fan of libraries anyway, but wow, this one took it to a whole new level. The documents there have shaped all of us, and they were displayed like the sacred relics they are. London may lack the elegance and culinary grace of France, but I felt like I found a spiritual home there, a place of shared and celebrated values, thanks to the finely choreographed cooperation of sisters, coffee-drinking strangers, and Sir John Ritblat. I wonder if they operate in some sort of cabal. If so, might they be hiring would-be conspirators, entry-level shapers of serendipity? Not that they would ever tell, and not that it matters. I will go back someday, with or without the sponsorship of a secret society.

5 thoughts on “Sisters, Strangers, and Serendipity

  1. Yes, horrifying!! The only reasonable approach is to pretend there’s never been a film adaptation and there never will be. If you see a poster or preview that suggests otherwise, just keep on walking and hum to yourself the Kate Bush song “Wuthering Heights” (which at least manages to hit the right emotional tone for Emily Bronte)

  2. Joanna – thank you for that post – your writing is elegant and inspiring and conveys a heartfelt spiritual intelligence. Thank you for the peek of an imaginary realm that you make very very real.

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